Morals and ethics do overlap. Broadly speaking, morals

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The meanings of morals and ethics do overlap. Broadly speaking, morals are individual principles of right and wrong, and a system of ethics deals with sets of those principles. Both terms entered the language in the Middle English period, with moral being the older form by about 100 years (c. 1300).

Morals and morality are about personal behavior, ethics more grandly philosophical. However, linguistic use constrains the philosophical use and helps to blur the distinction: one can have a single ethic, as in "a strong work ethic" or "an ethic of selfishness," but if we talk about a single moral, we've shifted a bit in meaning to the realm of Aesop and Uncle Remus, as in "the moral of the story." In the singular, a moral is a lesson to be learned about a single principle of right and wrong, and an ethic is a single guiding principle that affects your criteria for determining what is right and wrong. Yup, it’s blurry.

The distinction is best illustrated by the contexts in which these terms are used. When we disparage someone's behavior, we say that person has "low morals"; we would never say that a drug dealer has "bad ethics." Ethics as a branch of philosophy is studied in universities and theological seminaries. We have an Office of Government Ethics and write articles about political and judicial ethics. Think of it as a hierarchy of detail: when we talk about personal ethics, we are using the primary meaning of 'a set of moral principles'. We say that children are taught good moral principles, or morals, if they don't lie, cheat, or steal, and if they respect other people. Moral principles such as "Respect others" are further broken down into rules such as "Don't stick out your tongue at your sister." Why we don't simply call an individual moral principle a moral is that the 'object lesson' meaning is earliest and is still in use: the use of morals to mean 'moral conduct' arose around 1600.

In common usage we speak and write about a professional code of ethics and a person of high moral character.
There is a distinction between them in philosophy.

Strictly speaking, morality is used to refer to what we would call moral standards and moral conduct while ethics is used to refer to the formal study of those standards and conduct. For this reason, the study of ethics is also often called "moral philosophy." Here are some examples of statements which express moral judgments:

1. Dumping chemicals in the rivers is wrong and ought be banned.
2. It's wrong that our company is trying to avoid the regulations and it should stop.
3. He's a bad person - he never treats people well and doesn't seem to respect anyone.

As seen in the above examples, moral judgments tend to be characterized by words like ought, should, good and bad. However, the mere appearance of such words does not mean that we automatically have a statement about morals. For example:

4. Most Americans believe that racism is wrong.
5. Picasso was a bad painter.
6. If you want to get home quickly, you should take the bus.

None of the above are moral judgments, although example #4 does describe the moral judgments made by others. Example #5 is an aesthetic judgment while #6 is simply a prudential statement explaining how to achieve some goal.

Another important feature of morality is that it serves as a guide for people's actions. Because of this, it is necessary to point out that moral judgments are made about those actions which involve choice. It is only when people have possible alternatives to their actions that we conclude those actions are either morally good or morally bad.

When discussing morality it is important to distinguish between morals and mores. Both are aspects of human conduct and human interaction, but they are very different types of conduct. Mores are usually treated as "harmless customs," where "harmless" means that failure to follow the custom may result in a negative reaction, but not a very serious one. Such mores would include the time of day when meals are eaten and the proper form of greeting particular individuals.

Morals, on the other hand, involve much more serious aspects of how we behave and how we treat others. What this means is that failure to follow the dominant morals will result in a much harsher reaction from others - examples of this would include discrimination, physical abuse and theft.

Another important distinction in morality is that between standards, conduct and character. When we form a moral judgment, we are employing moral standards - principles against which we compare what we see in order to form a conclusion. Such judgments might be about particular conduct, which includes a person's actions, or it might be about a person's character, which includes their attitudes and beliefs.

Ethics, on the other hand, involves the study of those standards and judgments which people create. Ethics assumes that the standards exist and seeks to describe them, evaluate them, or evaluate the premises upon which those standards exist. This is where the field of ethics is broken down into Descriptive Ethics, Normative Ethics and Analytic Ethics (also called Metaethics).

The basic questions asked in Ethics include:

What does it mean to be good?
How can I differentiate good from evil?
Are morals objective or subjective?
MORALS reflect Values

One of the most important characteristics of moral judgments is that they express our values. Not all expressions of values are also moral judgments, but all moral judgments do express something about what we value. Thus, understanding morality requires investigating what people value and why.

There are three principle types of values which humans can have: preferential values, instrumental values and intrinsic values. Each plays an important role in our lives, but they don't all play equal roles in the formation of moral standards and moral norms.

Preference Value
The expression of preference is the expression of some value we hold. When we say that we prefer to play sports, we are saying that we value that activity. When we say that we prefer relaxing at home over being at work, we are saying that we hold our leisure time more highly than our work time.

Most ethical theories do not place much emphasis on this type of value when constructing arguments for particular actions being moral or immoral. The one exception would be hedonistic ethical theories which explicitly place such preferences at the center of moral consideration. Such systems argue that those situations or activities which make us happiest are, in fact, the ones we should morally choose.

Instrumental Value
When something is valued instrumentally, that means we only value it as a means to achieve some other end which is, in turn, more important. Thus, if my car is of instrumental value, that means that I only value it insofar as it allows me to accomplish other tasks, such as getting to work or the store.

Instrumental values play an important role in teleological moral systems - theories of morality which argue that the moral choices are those which lead to the best possible consequences (such as human happiness). Thus, the choice to feed a homeless person is considered a moral choice and is valued not simply for its own sake but, rather, because it leads to some other good - the well-being of another person.

Intrinsic Value
Something which has intrinsic value is valued purely for itself - it isn't used simply as a means to some other end and it isn't simply "preferred" above other possible options. This sort of value is the source of a great deal of debate in moral philosophy because not all agree that such intrinsic values actually exist.

If intrinsic values do exist, how is it that they occur? Are they like color or mass, a characteristic which we can detect so long as we use the right tools? We can explain what produces the characteristics like mass and color, but what would produce the characteristic of value? If people are unable to reach any sort of agreement about the value of some object or event, does that mean that its value, whatever it is, can't be intrinsic?

Instrumental vs. Intrinsic Values
One problem in ethics is, assuming that intrinsic values really do exist, how do we differentiate them from instrumental values? That may seem simple at first, but it isn't. Take, for example, the question of good health - that is something which just about everyone values, but is it an intrinsic value?

Some might be inclined to answer "yes," but in fact people tend to value good health because it allows them to engage in activities they like. So, that would make good health an instrumental value. But are those pleasurable activities intrinsically valuable? People often perform them for a variety of reasons - social bonding, learning, to test their abilities, etc.

So, perhaps those activities are also instrumental rather than intrinsic values - but what about the reasons for those activities? We could keep going on like this for quite a long time. It seems that everything we value is something which leads to some other value, suggesting that all of our values are, at least in part, instrumental values. Perhaps there is no "final" value or set of values and we are caught in a constant feed-back loop where things we value continually lead to other things we value.

Values: Subjective or Objective?
Another debate in the field of ethics is the role humans play when it comes to creating or assessing value. Some argue that value is a purely human construction - or at least, the construction of any being with sufficiently advanced cognitive functions. Should all such beings disappear from the universe, then some things like mass would not change, but other things like value would also disappear.

Others argue, however, that at least some forms of value (intrinsic values) exist objectively and independently of any observer. Thus, our only role is in recognizing the intrinsic value which certain objects of goods hold. We might deny that they have value, but in such a situation we are either deceiving ourselves or we are simply mistaken. Indeed, some ethical theorists have argued that many moral problems could be resolved if we could simply learn to better recognize those things which have true value and dispense with artificially created values which distract us.


Someone else makes this distinction:

Morals / Morality: The Social Contract itself; what we all agree we should do, e.g. our public “out-loud” consensus.

Ethics: The integrity of our private decisions, e.g. what we choose to do when no one is looking and we are reasonably certain our actions will not be discovered.

“Morals vs. Ethics” by Larry John

I am not a moral person… however, I am an ethical person. The reason I have chosen not to rule my life based on “morals” is that I think there is an extreme difference between morals and ethics. In my mind I clearly see a big difference between making your decision based on “morals” and making your decisions of life based on your personal ethics. The dictionary has this to offer…

Ethics: … choosing principles of conduct as a guiding philosophy.

Morals: …conforming to a standard of right behavior.

Here is where I see the difference. Morals are rules and standards that we are told we must “conform” to when deciding what is “right” behavior. Morals are dictated to us by either society or religion. We are not free to think and choose. You either accept or you don’t! We are taught by society and religion that you “shall not lie” or you should “give to the poor” or you must “love others as you would have others love you” or you must do something because it is “your moral obligation.” The key issue with “morals” is that you are expected to “conform to a standard of right behavior” and not question that “conforming” or you are not a “moral” person. But again, where do these “morals” come from to which we are expected to “conform”? Yep, from society and/or religion, but not from YOU, and that’s what bothers me.

Ethics, on the other hand, are “principles of conduct” that YOU CHOOSE to govern your life as a guiding philosophy that YOU have chosen for your life. Again, call it semantics if you want, but I see a big difference between “conforming” and “choosing.” With MORALS the “thinking has been done;” with ETHICS there’s a freedom to “think and choose” your personal philosophy for guiding the conduct of your life.

MORALS. I like to watch movies about the “mafia” or TV shows like the “Sopranos.” The people on these shows are extremely devoted people to their families and religions, but they have somehow “morally justified” their actions of killing, stealing, and lying.  How is it that these extremely devoted family men and supposedly devoted members of the Catholic religion think that what they are doing is moral is a mystery to me.  Yet they wear their “crosses,” cross themselves, love their kids, and dedicate themselves to the “family” while killing people who get in the way. Now that’s an interesting morality. But morals don’t stop there. Think of all the hundreds of cultures who have totally different ideas of morality. Some cultures think it is perfectly fine to have as many wives as they want; some think only one wife is moral in the eyes of God. Some cultures think that it is fine to steal if you need food; other cultures think that stealing is stealing and is never morally justified. Some cultures think that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” judgment is fine; other cultures think that this type of moral thinking is barbaric. When you leave MORAL THINKING to society and religion, there is no such thing as “absolute morality.” So, is there anything as a 100% MORAL PERSON? I think not, at least based on the criteria, culture, society, and religion telling us what our morals should be.

ETHICS is totally another matter. With ethics, you are free to choose your personal philosophy of conduct to guide your life. You are not dependent on the judgment of society or religion “based in fear” when making your ethical decisions. For example, I believe in telling the truth not because God may curse me, but because it is the right and best thing to do based on my personal ethics. I believe in being 100% faithful to my wife, not because adultery is a sin, but because being true to your wife is the smart and right thing to do. It is a better and happier way to live, again not because God will send me to hell if I commit adultery, but because it is the right and best way to live my life based on my ethical way of seeing things. I believe in keeping the laws of the land, however, I am not living my life based on the rules of society and religion, but solely based on a pragmatic and ethical way of living. I don’t steal because I’m afraid I might go to jail. I don’t steal because I have decided not to steal based on my ethics. I don’t have to be commanded to give to the poor. I concern myself with giving to and helping the poor based on my ethics. I have the freedom to choose and if I am smart, I will choose personal ethics that will enrich my life and the lives of others.

As with all other freedoms, there is always the risk that I will make ethical decisions that could cause me to drift over to the “dark side.” That’s the problem with the freedom to choose or free agency. Anytime we allow people the freedom to choose, we also give them the freedom to make bad choices. If you want to make bad ethical decisions that will make you, and perhaps others, unhappy, then you can. However, if you want to make good ethical decision that will make you and others happier, you have the freedom to make those ethical decisions too. I choose personal ethics to govern my life that make me happier, while I strive to enrich the lives of others. It’s the ethical thing to do based on my personal ethics. You don’t have to tell me not to lie, not to steal, not to kill, not to commit adultery, etc. I have already made my ethical decisions to NOT do those things. You don’t have to tell me to give to the poor, love my neighbor and my enemies, use my free agency for good, etc.  I have already made these personal ethical decisions. I choose my principles of personal conduct because I have thought about them. My ethics are my ethics, and yet interestingly enough, they almost always agree with society and religion. The only difference is I made these decisions. My personal thinking determines my ethics. I made these ethical choices. Not because I was told by society or religion to think a certain way but because I thought it was the best way to live a complete and fulfilled life of happiness.

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